Afghanistan, the Cinderellas of cricket
Tony Becca, Contributor
Afghanistan, Pakistan's northern neighbour, is famous, or infamous, as the home of the Talibans, the people who, according to the gospel of the Americans, are the world's most vicious terrorists.
Suddenly, however, Afghanistan is making waves in cricket. In fact, right now the cricketers of Afghanistan are the toast of the game.
Earlier this month, the ICC's qualifying tournament for the World Twenty20 tournament ended in Dubai, and to the surprise of everyone, Afghanistan crashed the party, shut out the likes of Scotland, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates, and will be in the West Indies in April and May for the big dance.
Two years ago, the name Afghanistan was synonymous with terrorists, guns and bullets. Today, it is more than that.
Today, Afghanistan is synonymous with cricket and for success with bat and ball.
Playing in Division Five of the ICC's World Cricket League, in the company of countries like Botswana, Germany, Mozambique and Norway, Afghanistan stepped up last year, competed in the qualifying tournament for the ICC World Cup in 2011, and after pocketing the scalps of some of the ICC's top Associates and Affiliates in South Africa, after defeating the likes of Ireland, Scotland and Namibia and losing to Canada, finished fifth behind Ireland, Canada, the Netherlands, and Kenya, just missing the boat.
After failing by one place to make it to the World Cup, the cricketers of Afghanistan set their sights on the World Twenty20, and starting with a victory over the Netherlands in the ICC's Inter-Continental Cup last August, and another, by 84 runs, over the UAE, they went from strength to strength, taking out their more experienced opponents one by one.
At the ICC Inter-Continental Cup in January, they defeated Ireland by seven wickets, and at a Twenty20 tournament in Sri Lanka in February, they whipped Canada by five wickets and Ireland by five wickets.
By the time they got to Dubai and the qualifying tournament for the 2010 World Twenty20, Afghanistan were hot, and despite losing to the Netherlands by four wickets, they dumped Ireland by 13 runs, Scotland by 14 runs and the USA by 29 runs to move into the semi-finals, where they defeated the United Arab Emirates by four wickets.
In the final, they destroyed Ireland, the mighty Ireland, by eight wickets.
The players of Afghanistan honed their skills while playing the game in refugee camps, and with countries like Kenya, Namibia, and the UAE, the USA, Argentina, and East Africa, who have been in cricket for many, many years, apparently marking time, the rise of Afghanistan in cricket is a plus for the ICC's development programme and a justification for the millions of dollars spent on its Associate and Affiliate members.
What can we expect from Afghanistan in April and May?
As well as they have been playing, not much should be expected from the newest name in cricket. Afghanistan represent the surprise team in the World Twenty20, and playing in the group with South Africa and India, they are unlikely to win a match much more to come out of the first round.
Based on the reports, however, Afghanistan do possess some players with talent, and although it is 'raw' talent, West Indian fans may be in for some wonderful cricket.
The likes of 22-year-old pace bowler Hameed Hassan - five for 22 off nine overs versus Ireland in the early rounds in South Africa; batsman Noor Ali - 43 not out off 25 deliveries against Ireland in the first match in South Africa; batsmen Mohammad Shahzad - 65 versus Ireland in Dubai; Karim Sadiq, and the hard-hitting Mohammad Nabi, who also bowls off spin; and opening bowlers Shapoor Zadran and Mirwars Ashraf seem to be exciting prospects.
On top of that, the Afghanistans are dreaming, according to Hassan, they are looking towards playing against, and dismissing, batsmen like Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis; to batting, and scoring runs, against a bowler like Dale Steyn; and who to tell, such is the nature of Twenty20 cricket that they may be able to take enough wickets and to score enough runs to win a match or two.
The World Cup, however, has produced a few surprises. The rallying call, the selling point, when it was being introduced to the world a few years ago, was that Twenty20 is anybody's game, and maybe, just maybe, Afghanistan may spring a surprise in this year's version of the World Twenty20.
The men from the home of the Taliban have defeated Ireland not once, not twice, but at least five times in the past year, and that suggests that Afghanistan is a good dark horse.
On Tuesday, in a four-day ICC Inter-Continental Cup match in Sharjah, the amazing Afghanistan turned up with another surprise.
After Canada had scored 566 in their first innings, after they were routed for 264, and after Canada had declared their second innings closed at 191 for four and left them 494 to win off 109 overs, Afghanistan produced another fairy-tale finish.
Led by a superb innings of 215 not out off 258 deliveries by 18-year-old Shahzad, Afghanistan raced to victory with six wickets in hand and 2.2 overs to spare.